It’s fitting that harbourside Helsinki, the capital of a country with such watery geography, entwines so spectacularly with the Baltic's bays, inlets and islands.
While Helsinki can seem a younger sibling to the Scandinavian capitals, it’s the one that went to art school, scorns pop music and works in a cutting-edge studio. The design scene here is one of the most electrifying in the world today, with boutiques, workshops and galleries proliferating in the Design District, Helsinki's thoroughfares and intriguing backstreets. The city's foodie scene is also flourishing, with hip eateries offering locally sourced tasting menus, craft-beer bars, coffee roasteries and microdistilleries popping up at dizzying speed.
Nevertheless, Helsinki's older icons endure. It's understated, yet glorious art-nouveau buildings, centenarian cafes, museums preserving Finnish heritage, and restaurants that have changed neither menu nor furnishings since the 1930s remain an intrinsic part of the city’s quirky charm.
TOP EXPERIENCES IN HELSINKI
Suomenlinna, the ‘fortress of Finland’, is set on a cluster of islands connected by bridges. The UNESCO World Heritage site was originally built by the Swedes as Sveaborg in the mid-18th century. Several museums, former bunkers and fortress walls, as well as Finland's only remaining WWII submarine, are fascinating to explore; its tourist office has info. Cafes and picnic spots are plentiful.
A group of small museums scattered around the city centre constitute this city museum: all have free entry and focus on an aspect of the city’s past or present through permanent and temporary exhibitions. The must-see of the bunch is the main museum, just off Senaatintori. Its excellent collection of historical artefacts and photos is backed up by entertaining information on the history of the city, piecing together Helsinki’s transition from Swedish to Russian hands and into independence.
Helsinki's only remaining traditional public wood-fired sauna dates back to 1928. It’s a classic experience, where you can also get a scrub down and massage. There are separate saunas for men and women; bring your own towel or rent one (€3). It’s a 150m stroll south-west of the Sörnäinen metro station in Kallio.